“This book will change your life.” One of my former high school students posted that endorsement on Facebook after reading Half the Sky by Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. When a friend said, “You will love this book MaryLou,” I had no choice but to buy it. And they were right. Half the Sky is an enthralling read and makes you realize that by empowering women we may be able to change our world.
The title of the book comes from a statement Mao Zedong once made, “Women hold up half the sky.” Mao’s reign in China resulted in many disastrous consequences for it’s citizens but one thing he did recognize was the importance of women making a major contribution to the nation on all fronts. So he set out to liberate women from foot binding, arranged marriage and the concubine system and he allowed them into the work place. Many argue it was this liberation of women that led to China’s phenomenal economic success.
In fact that’s the theme of Kristof and WuDunn’s book. When you educate women and allow them to become active participants in the economy of a country you immediately raise the standard of living in that country and improve its financial health. You also improve its chances for peace and see a decline in all types of violence.
Those aren’t just inspiring ideas; they are realities that are backed up in the book Half the Sky with dozens and dozens of personal stories and extensive footnotes citing the meticulous research the authors have done.
Kristoff and WuDunn are married and have three children. Separately, together, and as a family, they have traveled the world to see first hand how women are treated inhumanely in so many places but also to see how women with courage, idealism and determination are changing things for the better.
Half the Sky is not an easy book to read. It is chilling to learn about women who are the victims of honor killings, female genital mutilation, rape as an act of war, child prostitution and legal physical punishment by their husbands.
It is also rewarding to read about how starting a business, getting a good job, having an education, or receiving support and affirmation from other women can change women’s lives and the lives of their families.
The book points out the ineffectiveness of some international aid organizations. Their workers drive around in SUVs and live in fancy houses. They administer funds that do little to change women’s lives, but when local women are consulted and empowered to be leaders for change themselves great things can happen.
Some solutions WuDunn and Kristoff offer are unorthodox but have proven effective. They endorse a global drive to iodize salt because research shows female fetuses are particularly prone to impaired brain development if their mothers’ bodies lack iodine. Introducing television into rural communities has helped women see they don’t need to be subservient to men, that they can be successful and expect to be treated with respect.
Simple things like buying school uniforms, de-worming girls, paying for school lunches and providing supplies for young women when they menstruate, have proven to dramatically improve school attendance for girls in developing countries. Helping a woman start a small business can often revolutionize her life.
Half the Sky’s greatest strength may be the fact that it offers suggestions for immediate actions those of us who have been blessed with a more prosperous life can take to help women around the world.
Half the Sky has become a PBS television documentary and they have a website www.halftheskymovement.org/ where you can learn more.
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